First African American in Space
First African American in Space
Early in the morning of Aug. 30, 1983, Guion Bluford sat strapped in his seat aboard the space shuttle Challenger, preparing to make history. Lightning flashed outside as controllers waited for a storm to pass. After a short delay, the countdown resumed as the clock approached 2:32 a.m.
The solid rocket boosters and main engines ignited, bringing a false dawn to the night sky and flooding the crew compartment. Challenger roared off the launch pad and soared into the darkness. Ten minutes later, the space shuttle was in orbit. And Bluford became the first African American in space.
Guion Bluford, the first African American in space
It was an achievement that had been a long time coming. Twenty-two years had passed since Alan Shepard had become the first American in space. NASA had launched 38 space missions with 92 crew members prior to Bluford’s flight. All had been white males with the exception of Sally Ride, who flew the flight immediately before.
Space travel was the last thing on Bluford’s mind growing in up Philadelphia. He was born in 1942 to Guion and Lolita Bluford. Taking after his father, who was a mechanical engineer, Bluford graduated from Overbrook High School and then went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Pennsylvania State University in 1964.
Bluford then entered the Air Force, receiving his pilot wings in January 1966. A stint in Vietnam followed where he flew 144 combat missions. He returned stateside, where he earned an M.S. in aerospace engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) in 1974 and then a Ph.D. from the same institution in 1978.
That same year, NASA was recruiting new astronauts as it geared up to fly the space shuttle. Bluford applied, and he was chosen along with 34 other applicants as part of NASA’s eighth group of astronauts. The group was very different from previous ones; it included two other African Americans, six women, and one Japanese American.
After rigorous training, NASA officials selected Bluford as the first of the African American astronauts to fly. The media attention became quite intense, and the astronaut felt the pressure of the spotlight and the responsibility he bore as a trailblazer.
"I felt an awesome responsibility, and I took the responsibility very seriously, of being a role model and opening another door to black Americans, but the important thing is not that I am black, but that I did a good job as a scientist and an astronaut,” Bluford later recalled. “There will be black astronauts flying in later missions … and they, too, will be people who excel, not simply who are black . . . who can ably represent their people, their communities, their country."
During the STS-8 mission, the crew deployed the Indian National Satellite (INSAT-1B), operated the Canadian-built robot arm, conducted experiments with living cells, and studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body. The crew completed 98 orbits of the Earth over six days before landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Sept. 5, 1983.
After his trailblazing flight, Bluford would go on to fly three additional shuttle missions in 1985, 1991 and 1992. He retired from NASA the following year, having logged nearly 29 days in space.
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